Last week saw the Palestine Investment Conference, a three-day affair in Bethlehem organized to highlight investment opportunities in the Palestinian economy. Jewcy contributor James Murray-White was there to cover the event from start to finish.
Crossing into Bethlehem from Jerusalem is an experience. Coming back is tougher—being amongst Palestinians who are searched, held up, and often refused is a difficult sight to witness. Returning to Jerusalem on a little bus through the hilltop suburb of Beit Jala shows the interconnectedness of the hills and the land here: the continual heat beating down on us, the rocky fields interspersed with olive trees, two peoples living together on one piece of land.
Once you’re through the gray concrete monolith that is the checkpoint and wall complex, it hits you: Bethlehem, Palestine—a different country. Yellow taxis vie for your attention immediately, the terrible driving is worse than Israel, and the ever-present security wall runs into a town composed of rundown houses, shops, and buildings. The road is smooth, with a recently added speed bump, and the welcoming flags and banners attempt to hide the fact that not much is going on here at all. The Palestine Investment Conference hosted here last week was an attempt to change that. Held at two impressive venues—the Jacir Palace Hotel and the brand new Convention Center (so new that the road was being built as I drove up to it, and conference registration took place in a tent next to the front door)—the Conference, organized and pushed for in part by the Quartet Representative Tony Blair (the program refers to the Prime Minister as ‘His Eminence’), sought private and governmental investment in the area. Under the Conference slogan "You can do business in Palestine", this effort came as part of a US $7.7 billion commitment from the international donor community for a comprehensive 3-year development and rehabilitation plan for. The conference itself cost a total of $3 million, with half of that coming from various sponsors, and the remaining half paid for by the Palestinian Authority. This comes hand-in-hand with intensive and highly secret discussions between the Israeli and PNA negotiation team to achieve a peace plan, including a final status agreement on Jerusalem and the establishment of a formal Palestinian State.
Upon arrival, journalists were ordered to convene outside a side entrance to the Jacir Palace and watch the guards figure out how to assemble the type of security gate that beeps when you pass through with metal in your pocket. Then the media scrum had to surrender all of our possessions and cameras and tripods and watch as the Palestinian Police/Army/Security (it never was clear which was which) had their latest security gadget—a sniffer dog—sniff it all. Security was extremely heavy, including snipers on the surrounding buildings. It was intimidating, but they cannot risk losing a key player in the slow political machinations.
Once we all got through the newly-assembled gate, the media congregated for the press conference. Oddly, it was in Arabic, and the few foreign media were told that this was because the translation services were set up “in another room.” This could have been a disaster, but thankfully the Governor of Bethlehem and Chairman of the Conference, Saleh Al-Ta’mari, spoke English and translated from the podium. He and a few other high-ranking officials told us that 1200 participants had registered for the conference, including 7% from America, 5% from Israel, and 300 Palestinians from abroad. For the 109 projects on the metaphorical conference table, $2 billion was being searched for. I clutched my pocketful of shekels tightly. We were informed that we must all stay at the venue, probably for security reasons. It's generally a mistake to try to keep a pack of journalists—Palestinian or otherwise—in one venue for several hours with little happening. Watching the many delegates arrive and rating them on a scale of importance, or slowly befriending the security guys couldn’t entertain for that long. Speaking of the young, lean security guys: I'll stick my neck out here and say that I believe a lot of the US/EU money has gone to dressing them in Armani suits and Italian loafers. Never mind earning a living and supporting a family: Protect the ‘Rais’ (Palestinian President Mahmood Abbas—and all the others at the top of the importance scale, for that matter) and you will be measured up for a very fine silk-lined suit indeed, yours to keep while upholding the nascent Nation’s honor. They were impeccably turned out, putting Mr. Blair’s pasty English minders in threadbare Government surplus hand-me-downs to shame. Journalists were provided with a small ‘media center' that contained a few laptops and comfy chairs to lounge in, plus limited access to food and drink, although the venue was clearly stretched way over capacity.
Thankfully, I had a meeting set with Adam Nieman of No Sweat Apparel—the only Jewish-owned company participating in and looking for investors at the Conference—which turned out to be the highlight of the day. We retired to a nearby eatery, and Adam shared with me his formidable achievements in bringing business to Palestine from Boston, Massachusetts, and his no less extraordinary hopes and plans for the future. Adam brought his business, Bienestar International, to Bethlehem two years ago, and was delighted to be back in a place he regards as “the Gordian knot of global geo-politics.” Later, he introduced me to Khaled J. Al-Arja, the owner of Arja Textile Company in Bet Jala, Bethlehem, who is the manufacturer of Adam’s 100% organic cotton T-shirts.